The Pittsburgh area has stark racial inequities. Black Pittsburghers face a key question: Should they leave?

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A view of Downtown Pittsburgh from Webster Avenue in the Hill District. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

“If you dislike Pittsburgh, you dislike yourself. If you criticize Pittsburgh, you’re criticizing me.” 

I have heard this twice in the past few years. It felt like I was being admonished by a relative at a family gathering, and it made me want to leave the table before dinner was ready. 

However, another friend had a different message for me when I was on my way to teach overseas: “Never come back here, Tereneh.” It was whispered into my ear several years ago, and this friend eventually heeded their own advice and recently moved away. 

The “Should I stay or should I go?” question is never far out of mind. It’s been even more present in the recent weeks, when yet another report was released echoing multiple earlier reports of the inequities most African Americans have been facing for years and generations. Immediately after the report, many Black people in the city and its diaspora weighed in. I reached out to several people — former classmates, neighbors, people on social media — and asked them to share their thoughts on the fundamental question: Should Black people leave Pittsburgh? 

Markeea Hart, 29, Edgewood

Markeea grew up in Rankin. At the age of 9, her family moved to Kennerdell in Venango County, but she would come back to Pittsburgh every weekend. She enjoyed growing up here. “The culture was thriving in the early ’90s and ’00s … seeing all the Black-owned businesses as a kid really gave me hope I could do the same.” Markeea spent some time in Washington, D.C., and recently moved back to Pittsburgh in 2017.  

Reflecting on the findings of the report, Markeea said she was not surprised because, though she felt a sense of support within the Black Pittsburgh community for the larger City of Pittsburgh, “We already knew that this city doesn't care about Black people. I've always known this since I was a little girl growing up here.” 

Edgewood resident Markeea Hart in front of a mural in nearby Braddock. (Photo by Jay Manning/Publicsource)

However, instead of feeling defeated or deflated, she said the report “did nothing but encourage me to do more here in Pittsburgh.” Inspired by the challenges outlined in the report, she is more dedicated to staying in Pittsburgh. When asked if she is in agreement with one of the report’s co-authors that by just leaving, Black people can and will experience an increased quality of life, she reflected: “Yes and no, but I'm not going anywhere. Black women have a lot of work to do here in Pittsburgh. Black people will succeed in any city.” It’s important to stay, she said, because “Black women exist here in Pittsburgh. We must leave our imprint here. ...We must come together and start making territory again.” 

Barbara Lee, 50, Houston, Texas 

Growing up in the 1970s and 1980s in Homewood produced both good and bad memories for Barbara. She spent a lot of time at church, where her mother was the pianist. As a child, it was not fun; as an adult, she can appreciate it for creating a “sense of community, love and support.” This support was mirrored by the teachers she had at Crescent Elementary School who showed, “They believed in me and never seemed to feel there were any limitations to what I could learn or be.”  

Barbara said this changed when she was bused to Gladstone Middle School. “I slowly and painfully became aware of the fact that as a Black girl, most white people had limited expectations for me and didn't mind working to sabotage me — a child — so that I wouldn't exceed those expectations. I think that's one of the big tricks of racism, isn't it? To make you question what you know about yourself.”

But it was going to Washington, D.C. that offered “a real eye-opener … I realized I'd never seen Black people represented in all walks of life. …I saw ‘professional people’ walking in and out of government buildings in suits with a look of purpose and confidence. I realized that I rarely saw that at home. Why? It also felt like in Pittsburgh we were stuck in a different era. …The interactions between Black and white people in Pittsburgh were different than what I was seeing in D.C. No deferential tones or giving up space. It was a revelation!” 

Barbara graduated from Carnegie Mellon University and attended Tulane University for graduate school in New Orleans. In both Houston and New Orleans, “the Black community had a level of power and influence that I've never seen in Pittsburgh. They also had the resources to support and promote their own and help them establish businesses or pursue certain creative endeavors.” 

Moving away from Pittsburgh improved her quality of life. “I'm still in contact with friends from elementary, middle and high school and let me tell you — what people were able to achieve in other places versus Pittsburgh is a damn shame. ...There is no doubt in my mind that I would not have been able to accomplish the things that I have in my life while remaining in Pittsburgh. Not without great difficulty and delay. That environment was demoralizing. Simply toxic.” 

Barbara works in the healthcare industry and has raised two daughters, one of whom just started her bachelor’s degree in computer engineering at the University of Texas.

"...I think that fear of the unknown is what keeps a lot of Black people [in Pittsburgh], and it's a shame. Shame on Pittsburgh as a community for not having the difficult conversations about race, racial disparities and coming up with solutions sooner. I'm afraid this report will fade from significance, and things will remain the same.”

Thomas Agnew, 35, Garfield/Lawrenceville 

Thomas grew up in Fremont, Ohio, and came to Pittsburgh to attend the Art Institute of Pittsburgh. In addition to Ohio and Pittsburgh, Thomas has lived in the Fort Worth/Dallas, Texas area, and Los Angeles, California.

Have you ever thought of leaving Pittsburgh? “Yes. I came to Pittsburgh for college in 2002. Definitely considered leaving and have explored opportunities to do so. Mostly for the advancement of my career and to be around cultures/areas that had more awareness when it came to creatives.”

Like everyone I spoke with, Thomas was not surprised by the report’s findings, saying “It’s information we've known all along. It just hits different when put into a report. Really it serves no purpose if there are no action items put into play. Being educated is one thing, but how do you make the situation better?” 

Should we stay or should we go? “There are more opportunities everywhere to better yourself. You have to be surrounded by a community that can help you move forward. We have to gain opportunities to get out of survival mode. That will not happen in a majority-white city that does not sympathize with the destruction and continuous downplay of Black lives and experiences.” 

Thomas has his reasons for staying in Pittsburgh. “I love the creative community here. I've grown into an adult here. I want to see the people I've come up with succeed in whatever way they believe fits for them. There's a large untapped opportunity to show the strength of what Black people can do.”

What will happen in the future is murky, he said. “Without real action, it's hard to tell. Through BOOM Concepts, I've seen Black women and femmes become even more confident in their work and make great use of opportunities and resources. But...there are opportunities to get outside of Pittsburgh. If the city will not provide, you must go out in the world and claim what you want.”  

Sherell Davis, 50, Las Vegas, Nevada 

Sherell grew up in the Hill District, Monroeville, Point Breeze and Lawrenceville and attended Slippery Rock University. In 1997, she moved to Los Angeles, California, to pursue a career as a singer. She eventually landed in Las Vegas, where she currently resides. 

Sherell said she enjoyed her childhood in the Pittsburgh area because she attended great schools and had close friends. Her career led her to the decision to leave.  She agrees that leaving Pittsburgh increased her quality of life. “That has been true for me.”

“It is weird but I notice things as an adult that I did not know as a kid. I think the report is right on the money.  Everyone that I know who moved away for various reasons are doing much better than they ever did while living in Pittsburgh.”  

Heather Manning, Wilkinsburg 

Heather enjoyed coming to Pittsburgh for field trips to the Carnegie Science Center and the Pittsburgh Zoo as a child living in Meadville. As a teen, Heather would go to “queer punk and riot grrrl shows at a coffee shop” on the Chatham campus.

Heather Manning by a community garden near her home in Wilkinsburg. (Photo by Jay Manning/PublicSource)

Heather has lived all over the country including San Francisco, Philadelphia and New Orleans.  Her decisions to live in Philly and New Orleans were “a direct response to growing up in a predominantly white racist small Pennsylvania town.” She said she was “seeking the opposite, wanting to study and practice art in communities composed mostly of people of color.” 

After spending time in California, her plan was to temporarily relocate to Pittsburgh, but she met her now husband who had moved to Pittsburgh from Youngstown, Ohio. Despite never wanting to live in this area again, she “followed her heart and joined him.” 

Heather said that although she has experienced the potential for an increased quality of life by not living in Pittsburgh, she does not think now is the time for her to leave. She is “a big advocate of Black folks who live here traveling as much as possible. I think it’s incredibly important for any of us to travel. But especially for Black folks living in such an oddly segregated and predominantly white city. It’s necessary for our spirit to go to cities where there is real diversity.”  

She also believes that she “has been fortunate to have created some intentional and deeply healing relationships with other Black femmes in Pittsburgh. The community that I belong to is focused on the wellness of ourselves and other Black women. ...I approach my relationship to this city as someone who is both an outsider and someone directly familiar with Black Appalachian culture. It is how I grew up. And I see it reflected in this city in so many ways. Both hopeful and deeply troubling.” 

Brittany J. Thurman, 32, Louisville, Kentucky

In many ways, Brittany is an example of “new” Pittsburghers the city claims it wants to attract. Originally from Louisville, Brittany received her master’s in fine art from Carnegie Mellon University. She planned to stay for two years. “After I graduated, I began working in various nonprofits promoting early literacy and felt the urge to stay.” 

After reading the equity report, Brittany reacted: “Some of us have been figuratively yelling and screaming our experiences for years, but no one has listened until this particular report came to light. It’s great to have the numbers, it’s great to have the statistics, but it’s also vital to listen to the lifelong residents of Pittsburgh who face these inequities daily.” 

(Photo courtesy of Brittany J. Thurman)

In addition to living in Louisville, Brittany also studied in Raleigh, North Carolina, and spent three years studying in London. She has an interesting vantage point to consider the idea that leaving can increase your quality of life. “Yes, in some ways I do feel another city or state will increase our quality of life. That’s not without saying that those other cities and states don’t have their issues which Black residents face, they most certainly do. I’ve felt that Pittsburgh’s unaddressed inequities, stagnation and blatant racism is much more rampant than other cities.” However, she adds that if Pittsburgh is your home, “I feel that if a person is contemplating leaving, then they should make that step. I also feel that no one should let anyone force them out.”  

Brittany moved back to Louisville in September 2019. “For myself, moving meant more sunlight and warmth in the winter months, a better support system and a better employment opportunity. My previous employer in Pittsburgh made it known that my being away for Thanksgiving and Christmas Day to see my family was an issue. I sought a position that values myself, my skills and my previous experiences. It was also encouraging to see other Black young professionals in Louisville holding management positions. The company structure in many Pittsburgh institutions consists of majority-white management, with little to no opportunities for Black or People of Color to get their foot in the door. I wanted to be part of a company that authentically offers representation, instead of checking off a box. I also came to a point where I could not take the overt and blatant discrimination. Being born and raised in two Southern states, I have always felt Pittsburgh’s racial issues are heightened and unaddressed.”

Tara Fay,  East End

Tara grew up in Buffalo, New York, but moved to the area as a teenager when her family relocated to Wilkinsburg. Reflecting on the report, Tara said: “I think quantifiable data is always important, despite the report confirming what so many of us already knew. I think it’s alarming that we haven’t seen more of a response in the way of solution-based actions from the mayor or local government, and we are just kind of sitting on this report without really knowing what to do.” 

Tara said she never wanted to stay in Pittsburgh. “I’m here now because there’s more work to be done. [While] there’s more urgency in terms of leaving, I’m raising children and the idea that their quality of life will be so severely impacted the longer they stay is really scary. When I leave, it’ll be because I’ve done all I can here job-wise, project-wise, contribution-wise.” 

While Tara plans on staying for now, she thinks there is justification for some people to leave. “I think if people choose to be critical of individuals wanting to leave, they should work towards a better solution. We can all sit on the internet all day, but it won’t change anything. Action will.” 

Terry Gibson, 33, Holyoke, Massachusetts 

Terry grew up in the DMV (D.C., Maryland and Virginia). He spent his teens and early 20s in Central Florida. In 2012, he arrived at the Greyhound station after a long bus ride from Ocala, Florida, having decided to make a big change in his life by selling everything and heading here to join his brother who was attending the Art Institute of Pittsburgh.  

When he first arrived, he “kept hearing whispers about how Pittsburgh was a racist town. At first I was skeptical, thinking that it couldn't be as bad as Ocala.” He recounted a story from his middle school days that Black teachers were warned via memo that they should not come to work because the Ku Klux Klan had planned to “kill everyone Black.” 

(Photo courtesy of Terry Gibson)

(Photo courtesy of Terry Gibson)

He discovered that in Pittsburgh “the racism was subtle. It's buried deep in racial covenants. It's hidden in plain sight. ...In Pittsburgh, there's no need to fly the Rebel flag or to hang nooses from trees when no matter where you go you as a Black person you're outnumbered on all fronts. ...I was working to mend some of these issues with various organizations but found that complacency and fear paralyzed many people, preventing them to actually follow through on their ideas. Another thing I found was that for many of the people running certain social groups and organizations, this was a job where they were making six figures. That type of money changes a person’s attitude, their motives and their morals, but more so the money co-opts the movements by further compounding classism.”  

The report finding came as no surprise to Terry: “It's all very obvious. For generations, Blacks in Pittsburgh have been subjugated, excluded, treated like second-class citizens. I visited the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati, and they described Pittsburgh as a wrong turn city — meaning if an escaped slave found themselves in the city, they must have made a wrong turn somewhere and should find a way out immediately. It's no different now. The report only further proves how even still the city cares very little about the wellbeing of Black folks.” 

2019 was the turning point for Terry, and he decided to move. On July 1, he moved to Holyoke, Massachusetts, which has a 51% Latinx population. He secured a job he enjoys within three months and has been told by his supervisor he is up for promotion. He believes he is “living testament of how moving out can change your life. In Pittsburgh, I couldn't find work that would ever pay me my worth. I was limited to being employed by companies that were threatened by my intelligence or took advantage of my taking initiative on certain tasks without even a thank you. There's cleaner air and water outside Pittsburgh. Better jobs and better homes. Better responses to climate change and poor city management. There are thoughtful supportive social movements independent of their local government outside of Pittsburgh. I mean, honestly, there's just so much more world to explore and that in itself is refreshing.”

Tereneh Idia can be reached at tereneh@gmail.com.

This story was fact-checked by Samuel Marks.

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